Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “mind at death (maranacitta)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 2 - The mind at death (maraṇacitta)

Note: This appendix was extracted from Chapter XXXIX part 2.2 (The knowledge of the retribution of actions):

“But how can the mind at death (maraṇacitta), which lasts only a short time, prevail over the power of actions (saṃskārabala) that extend over an entire lifetime?”.

This is the objection made by Milinda to Nagasena in the Milindhapañha, p. 80:

Tumhe evaṃ bhaṇata: yo vassasataṃ akusalaṃ kareyya maraṇakāle ca ekaṃ Buddhagataṃ satiṃ paṭilabheyya so devesu uppajjeyyāti; etaṃ na saddahāmi:

You say: “The one who has done bad deeds for a hundred years but who, at the moment of death, has even one single thought of the Buddha, is reborn among the gods”, that I do not believe.

But every Indian – and not just Buddhists – puts great importance on the last mind, the ‘mind at death’ (maraṇacitta).

We read in the Bhagavadgīta, VIII, 6:

“Whatever existence is conceived of by the person who, at the end of his life, is separated from his body, this is the existence into which he passes; it is always in this condition that he is reborn.”

Buddhists, it is true, deny the existence of a soul, but, nevertheless, they recognize that the mind at conception (upapatticitta) is the continuation of the mind at death (maraṇacitta). Hence the necessity of properly preparing the dying person for death.

Well-meaning rather than enlightened, the deities of gardens, forests and trees invite the householder Citta to wish to become a cakravartin king, but the dying person refuses because that is a transitory (anicca) unstable (addhuva) situation destined to pass away (Saṃyutta, IV, p. 302–304).

The Buddha entrusts to the Upasāka the duty of consoling the sick and maintaining the dying (Saṃyutta, V, 408–410).

“Have you not heard”, he asks his cousin Mahānāman, “that an upāsaka endowed with wisdom should encourage an upāsaka endowed with wisdom who is sick, who is suffering, who is gravely ill?”

He is reminded that he has intelligent faith (aveccappasāda) in the Three Jewels and the moral precepts dear to the saints. If he is troubled about the outcome of his affairs, he is invited to lay aside such worries inasmuch as his death is near and he will be unable to do anything more about them. If he remains attached to the five objects of sense enjoyments (colors, sounds, smells, tastes and tangibles), he is asked to renounce these human pleasures, scorned by the gods. If he aspires to the bliss of the paradises, he is told to notice that even Brahmā’s heaven is impermanent and not final, because it involves the idea of self (sakkāyapariyāpanna).

Finally, a pressing invitation is made:

“Lift you mind up and apply it to the cessation of the self (cittaṃ vuṭāpetvā sakkāya nirodhe cittaṃ upasaṃhara).”

Indeed, the Buddha has stated that there is no difference as to the deliverance of the mind between such an upāsaka and a bhikṣu whose mind is liberated from the afflictions. If the upāsakas must assist one another, what can be said of residential monks (āvāsika bhikṣu) specially charged with the care of the householders?

According to the Anguttara, III, p. 263–264, the resident monk is held to five services:

“He leads them to a high morality (adhisīla). He causes them to live in the mirror of the Dharma (dhammadassana). He visits the sick and encourages them to fix their attentiveness (sati), the most important thing of all. He encourages the populace to welcome strangers who are monastics properly, for their coming is an occasion to gain merit. He eats good or bad food offered to him in order not to spoil a gift given in faith.”

The Buddha’s concern for the sick and the dying has been shared by his disciples in the course of the centuries:

a. Already at the time of the Buddha, the housewife Nakulamātā addressed admirable advice to her dying husband, the purports of the texts of which have been preserved for us (cf. Anguttara, III, p. 295–298).

b. Several centuries later, the emperor Aśoka was concerned about the salvation of those whom he had condemned to death. In his fourth pillar edict (cf. J. Bloch, Les Inscriptions d’Aśoka, p. 165), he proclaimed: “For prisoners whose penalty is fixed and who are condemned to death, I reserve three days for their use. Their relatives will intercede to save their lives, or if there is nobody to intercede, they will do charitable deeds or will carry out a fast in view of the next world. For this is what I desire: that even after the expired time limit, they will gain the other world.”

c. In Ceylon at the time of Buddhaghosa (cf. Visuddhimagga, p. 469), a kind of sacrament for the dying was carried out. Friends came to the sick person and said to him: A worship of the Buddha is going to be carried out according to your wishes; be of peaceful mind therefore (tav’ atthāya Buddhapūjā kariyati, cittaṃ pasādehi). Five kinds of offerings are prepared: flowers, garlands, flags and banners for the eye, recitations of the text and music for the ear, incense and perfume for the smell, honey and cakes for the taste, cloth for the touch. “Touch these objects”, the dying person is told; “these are the offerings that will be given by you.” The mind at death thus represents a complete sacrifice to the Buddha and will determine the future mind at conception favorably.

In Buddhist pietism, the last thought will preferably be a final invocation to a Buddha or a bodhisattva of choice. The invocation itself is indispensible.

An enviable fate is promised to those who have heard the name of the Tathāgata Bhaiṣajyaguru: “At the time of their death, eight bodhisattvas miraculously present themselves and show them the path” (Bhaiṣajyagurusūtra cited in Śikṣasamuccaya, p. 175: teṣāṃ maraṇakālasaye ‘ṣṭau bodhisattvā ṛddhyāgatya mārgam upadarśayanti).

Surrounded by magical monks, Amitabha is present at the death of his devotees who, in ecstasy on seeing this Tathāgata and without detaching their minds from him, leave this world to take rebirth in Sukhāvati (Sukhāvativyūha, p. 48: te tena tathāgatadarśanaprasādālambanena samādhināpramuṣitayā smṛtyā cyutās tatraiva buddhakṣetre pratyājaniṣyanti).

No matter how great his crimes, the devotee of Avalokiteśvara is comforted in his last moments by twelve Tathāgatas: “Fear not, O son of good family; you have heard the Kāraṇdavyūha, you will wander in saṃsāra no longer; there will be no further birth, old age or death for you” (Kāraṇdavyūha, p. 23, 95).

But the problem that arises is to know whether the mind at death is able to wipe out completely a life of sin. This is what the Traité maintains here by emphasizing the primordial role of the last mind, abandoning the body and the organs. Nevertheless a few comments may be made:

1) The state of death (maraṇāvasthā) is physically and mentally lifeless (mandika), and at death as at birth, the mental consciousness (manovijñāna) is associated with the feeling of indifference (see Kośa, III, p. 118, 131). Therefore the last mind is not as sharp (paṭu) as is claimed.

2) The person is not the master of his last mind. Practically and logically, is good death is possible only if one has lived well, for, according to the fortunate expression of the Buddha, “the tree falls to the side in which it was leaning” (see above, p. 1082–1083F and notes).

3) According to orthodox opinion, every volitional past action entails a retribution. Therefore the last mind in no way prevents the other mind-actions from bearing their fruit: in some circumstances, however, it can be rewarded before the others. In regard to the order in which actions are rewarded, we are reduced to hypotheses.

A stanza by the sthavira Rāhula cited by the Kośabhāṣya, p. 477, l. 20–21, and commented on in Kośavyākhyā, p. 719, presents it as follows:

Yad guru yac cāsannaṃ yac cābyastaṃ kṛtaṃ ca yat |
pūrvaṃ pūrvaṃ pūrvāṃ vipacyate karmasaṃsāre ||

In other words, the following are rewarded in order: the grave (guru) action; in its absence, the recent (āsanna) action that perfumes the dying mind; in its absence, the habitual (abhyasta) action; lacking the preceding ones, an action from an earlier life (pūrvakṛtam) the efficacy of which has been delayed by those of more serious actions.

This present note is especially inspired by the works of L de La Vallée Poussin on the last mind: see Death in HERE, IV, p. 448–449; Notes bouddhiques, Bull. Cl. Lett. Acad. Roy. De Belgique, 1925, p. 18–20; Morale bouddhique, 1927, p. 55, 181, 233.

On “One Mind” in Amidism, see P. Demiéville, Les versions chinoises du Milindapañha, BEFEO, 1924, p. 166, 231–246.